May 27, 2016

Known in Bread

a sermon delivered on Corpus Christi 2000 at Christ Church Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Believe it or not, in our gathering together here this evening we have been surrounded by miracles, and swept up into a mystery. For miracles need not be overtly supernatural so long as they produce faith. That is, the importance of miracles does not lie in whether they appear to defy the laws of science and reason, but in what they work upon the human spirit, leading us into all truth, revealing God’s presence to the eye of faith, parting the curtain of the mystery for a moment to let the mortal behold the immortal, and adore.

You may have heard of the miraculous tortillas that occasionally appear on the griddles of devout women in Mexico. Now the tortillas do not appear as manna from heaven, discovered in the morning with the risen dew, already baked and ready for gathering, with a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath. No, the miracle lies in the fact that cooked into the surface of these otherwise quite ordinary tortillas is the appearance of the likeness of Christ. Perhaps you’ve seen photographs of these miraculous tortillas, dried and preserved in cigar boxes lined with colorful wrapping paper, adorned with plastic flowers, and reverently placed on the shelves of the homes blessed with this miraculous visitation.

And of course one could say that all of this has a scientific explanation: that the human brain, with its need and ability to read pattern into chaos, can see the likeness of Christ in the random scorches on the surface of the baked tortilla, much as one can look at clouds and see them forming ships at sea, castles in Spain, or an entire zoo of fluffy animals.

Yet even though the miraculous tortilla may have a fairly simple explanation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle — for it brings faith and nourishes faith — and it is faith, not magic, that is truly miraculous. Faith is the reason miracles happen in the first place, whether the heart disposed towards God is open to accept the gift, or the soul turned away from God receives a gentle (or not so gentle) tap on the shoulder to recall the straying and jaded eye to the heart and source of reality.

For the real miracle isn’t that the face of Christ should appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is that anyone could believe in a God who would be interested in having his face appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is to believe that God might be interested in surprising and blessing a poor Mexican housewife while she labors over a hot griddle at the end of a long day; that God would be at all concerned with being in our midst this evening as we undertake a ritual with its branches in the high middle ages, and its roots in the depths of the human psyche where the mysterium tremendum et fascinans lurks to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks; that God would be interested in the wanderings of an insignificant tribe of desert nomads, to feed them for a generation on bread they had no better name for than “what is this?”; that the creator and governor of the universe could be concerned about the political affairs of a shepherd-boy turned king; that the God whose love moves the sun and the other stars would visit a young woman at her prayers and chose her to be the mother of his incarnate Son; and then chose to have her bear him in a barn; that God would, in that Son, live and die as one of us, and be raised from the dead, and then — the miracles continue — not immediately ascend to heaven, but continue those prosaic little field trips, having breakfast by the seaside, taking a walk with two disciples, and finally, breaking bread with them.

This is the heart of the miracle we celebrate this evening. That the bread of Emmaus and the manna of the wilderness are no more a revelation of the presence of God than the tortilla of Guadelajara, or the spotless host of Carroll Gardens, even carried in procession like a pillar of fire here to Cobble Hill.

For it is in the simple actuality of bread, an every-day kitchen table commonplace, that God Almighty has chosen and still chooses to be made known — and that is a miracle if ever there was one!

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And yet… and yet. How slow we are to realize the miracle as it happens! We look for the technicolor, hi-res special effects of the apocalypse, while God reveals himself in the simple white-bread world around us.

How slow of heart, like the children of Israel who looked at the manna with a shrug, and soon complained that it wasn’t adequate food; how like the disciples who walked that road with Jesus, how slow to believe we are when we miss the presence of God with us, feeding us, walking at our side and opening the Scripture to us, and breaking the bread with us, the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest, the God who calls us no longer servants, but friends.

Jesus says, "How dull you are! How slow to believe the prophets!” And with this simple exclamation he echoes God's never-failing amazement with Israel. “When will you get it?” God seems to say. “How many seas must be parted, how many pillars of fire, how much bread from heaven, how many crucifixions, how many risings from the dead until you understand how much I love you?”

God is ever-patient, but often speaks to his people in this way. Just as Jesus walked with the disciples on that rural roadway, so God accompanied the children of Israel in their wandering in the wilderness, and brooded in their midst in the Temple all those years. The prophets, from Moses to Mary Magdalene, had been discounted, ridiculed, and disbelieved by the very people who most needed to hear the news. The church still stands divided, suffering with self-inflicted wounds while a world it was meant to save looks on bemused.

Yet God does not abandon these stubborn children. God loves them — loves us — too much for that. And that is the greatest miracle, the greatest faith: God’s faith in his children, God[‘s faith in his friends. God’s faith in us. It is to that faith, to God’s faith in us, to which God bids us open our eyes! God does not and will not leave us comfortless. There is always time for another message, even a message from God's own Son, risen from the dead. There is always more bread to be handed round, even though we thought there were only five loaves.

God’s faith in us is such that even when we doubt and disbelieve he stoops to make his presence known to us, coming into our midst in a miracle that startles us by its simplicity, that shames us by its audacious condescension — that the gate of heaven opened by this saving victim might be no wider than “this” [the fingers’ breadth width of the host in the monstrance] and that the God who created the universe should be made known in bread.

O come, let us worship, alleluia. ✠

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 21, 2016

The Importance of Being Articles

I don't have the time to flesh it out in full just at the moment, but I want to flag how important close attention to text is to any case made concerning marriage. There are two places in Scripture where inattention to the difference between definite and indefinite nouns has wrought havoc with a consistent and canonical comprehension of the texts.

First, when Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 speaks of "male and female" (zakar u'nqebah) it is using nouns, not adjectives. It would be better to translate as "a male and a female." Reading this text as referring to classes of people instead of two individuals has given rise to much unproductive theological reflection concerning everything from the nature of the image of God to a defective anthropology that squeezes the understanding of humanity into a dualistic, yin-yang strait-jacket.

Evidence for the correct reading (as nouns and not adjectives) comes in part from Jesus' reading of the passage to be about a pair: the "two" who become one. (Mark 10:8; as in Matthew, Jesus picks up the LXX version of Genesis which refers to "the two" -- an emphasis not needed in the Hebrew). Jesus uses this as his starting point for the durability of marriage. (I've noted elsewhere that the Qumran texts follow this reading concerning "the two" in support of the call for radical monogamy.)

Additional canonical support for this reading comes from Genesis itself: whenever the phrase occurs in Genesis it could (and should) be translated with the indefinite article to indicate nouns are being used, rather than cast as adjectives. This is perhaps clearest Genesis 6:19 and 7:3,9, and 19 (the only other uses of this phrase in Genesis), all of which refer to the pairs of animals to be saved in the ark. Each pair consists of one male and one female. (Note that other uses of "male and female" in English translations of Genesis, such as references to "male and female slaves" add further confusion. No words for "male" or "female" occur in these passages; there are separate Hebrew words for "a male slave" and "a female slave.")

The second mistaken reading (unfortunately well enshrined in the tradition) is the reading of Ephesians 5:32 that forces "Paul" to make the very unlikely statement that marriage is a great mystery -- understood as a sacrament. Again, I've written about this at some length elsewhere, but want to flag the problems with this reading here. First, it is obviously inconsistent to suggest that the Pauline School (if not Paul himself -- there being some disagreement as to the authorship of the epistle) would attach a quasi-divine status to an institution elsewhere in "his" writings given scant honor beyond its social utility. Second, this is not the only verse in the epistle to refer to "mystery" -- and as the author makes clear in the following clause, he is talking about that same mystery that is addressed throughout the document -- the mystery of Christ and of the Church, how the two become one, a mystery reflected in -- but not consisting of -- the marriage of a man and a woman. And, of course, that is what the text says, though bad translations have twisted it in such a way as to have the author speak of "a" great mystery -- one such marvel among many. But a literal translation of the verse, far from saying "This is a great mystery," would read, "This mystery is great -- but I speak of Christ and of the Church." Not marriage, not the verse from Genesis; but the mystery of salvation in Christ, in which all of humanity, Jew and Gentile, is taken up and redeemed. And if that isn't a genuinely Pauline message I don't know what is.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 2, 2016

Great Cloud of Confusion

There is a good deal of confusion in some quarters concerning the status of the commemorations in Holy Women, Holy Men and the forthcoming Great Cloud of Witnesses. This confusion stems in part from the commendable desire felt by many clergy obediently “to conform to the ... Worship of the... Church,” and uphold the principle of common prayer. The confusion enters in due to the habit of General Convention of authorizing various liturgical resources for trial use over the years, and Great Cloud of Witnesses has not been presented in that way.

That need not be a concern. The reason commemorations listed in Lesser Feasts and Fasts went through “trial use” was their inclusion on the Calendar of the BCP (only alternatives or revisions to the BCP actually require trial use; the Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and even single diocesan bishops, can authorize additional liturgical resources as they will, per both the Constitution and the BCP). HWHM was originally to be an extension of Lesser Feasts, and so was offered for trial use due to the changes in the Calendar it would have presented, but GCoW is offered as a resource for congregations to do what the BCP already allows; it does not need “trial use” because the rubrics of the BCP already "authorize" such commemorations, for which GCoW supplies proper collects and readings. The resolution enabling the publication of GCoW states this clearly: “That the 78th General Convention make available for publication and distribution by individuals and in congregations and other church groups for devotional or catechetical use, or use in public worship subject to the provision for optional commemorations on page 18 of the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical resource entitled, ‘A Great Cloud of Witnesses...’” (emphasis mine). The language is a bit tortured, but “use in public worship subject to... the BCP” is crystal clear.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG